Music, Science, & the Child's Brain
 Nancy E. Harris, M.H. Vocologist
The Ancient Greeks believed in the “music of the spheres” and that music written in certain scales affected our emotions differently. They also believed that education of the young must include musical instruction, that it was vital to our existence as human beings. And remember that old saying: “Music soothes the savage beast”? Today we know that the ancients had it right:

• NASA has made recordings of planetary vibrations as our unmanned ships have flown by them…they DO vibrate, i.e. have a pitch. And we know now that all things vibrate.
• Psycho-acoustic research has proven that specific frequencies affect our brain waves. (What is techno rock doing to our kids?)
• Research has also shown that language and music, both having pitch, pause, pace, phrasing, etc., are genetic, and that infants physically initiate their own learning periods. They become very agitated if they receive no response from their care-takers. And all children, no matter what the culture, sing a minor third before any other interval. (Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah; Cuckoo) Music is part of our humanness.
• Children with the sensory-integration disorder ADHD, when exposed to classical music, reach temporary coherence. Music curbs depression and loneliness in older people, and assists stroke victims to recover speech patterns more quickly. Through rhythm exercises, the neurological processing and cortical reorganization in stroke victims can be stimulated. These exercises are more effective than conventional physiotherapy.

Some future applications of our new understanding that music is not merely a cultural phenomenon but a biological fact include therapies for brain injury, relief of anxiety without medication, and methodology to enhance children’s learning and development. The sources listed below show that chances for academic and life success improve dramatically when music is included in education.

Go to, the website of the American Music Conference for summaries of the latest research. Much of the information listed below is from that site. For audio recordings of presentations given in July 2004 at the The Royal Institution’s first public conference, The Musical Brain, go to Other sources include Biofeedback Magazine (Summer 2002); the University of California at Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at; the Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute (MIND) at, and brochures on the Benefits of Music Education from MENC at

About 100,000 nerve cells per minute are developing in an unborn-baby’s brain. The adult brain reaches nearly 100 billion neurons. We do not add brain cells as we age, but lose them. The number of interconnections, or patterns of neuronal connections, is more important than the number of cells. Heavy stimulation of all of the senses creates the densest development of neural networks. It also can enhance spatial reasoning ability (the ability to think through 3-D puzzles without resorting to an actual model). Music training generates the neural connections used for abstract reasoning, including those necessary for understanding mathematical concepts. Early musical experiences (lullabies, musical crib mobiles, rocking to music, other listening experiences, etc.) are, therefore, very important.

MUSICAL DEVELOPMENT The following is an extremely abbreviated summary of research results relating to biological, cultural, and social behaviors as they relate to music. I have highlighted several points extremely important to teachers.

Pre-Natal: listening/physical response/recognition of mother’s voice through body vibrations
1-5 days old: can discriminate differences in frequency.
15-16 weeks: cooing and purposeful vocal sounds
5 months: sensitivity to melodic contour and rhythmic changes; can discriminate differences
in frequency less than one half step
6 months: match specific pitches
8-11 months: rely on melodic contour to make pitch discriminations
Up to 1 year: considerable melodic and intonational experimentation
1-1.5 years: actions to music (rocking, marching, rolling, listening), movement between tones
by glissando rather than discrete pitches
1.5-2.5 years: produce discrete pitches, spontaneous improvisation of song fragments of
seconds, minor thirds, major thirds, not clearly organized; contain little tonality or regular rhythm
2.5-3 years: spontaneous songs give over to recognition and imitation of folk tunes, rhythmic structure is learned

3-6 years: CANNOT PRACTICE WITHOUT SUPERVISION & help; cannot lie as can’t hypothesize; not yet empathetic; anxiety is product of environment; child focuses on mistakes; after 8 months of keyboard, showed 46% boost in spatial reasoning IQ; “Preoperational”; Egocentric; no cognitive representation of concepts; must SING music in order to recall and reconstruct the music itself; up & down, high & low—depends on movement & manipulation; must touch to understand; NO ability to learn from mistakes;
3-4 years: capable of reproducing an entire song by contour; accurate pitch representation not always possible
5 years: underlying pulse extracted from surface rhythm (keep steady beat); able to sing entire song in same key without modulating; increasing awareness of a set of pitches instead of just contour;

Kindergarten through 2nd grade
5-7 years: The “shift”, a critical period for learning, especially languages; in next 5 years acquire stable internal pitch framework; learn to sing best through vocal models (best is a female child’s voice without vibrato); improve significantly more if receive verbal or visual feedback regarding accuracy of their singing; need opportunities to sing in both groups and individually to improve;

7-11 years: “Operational”; can take others’ point of view but will make reasoning errors; black or white thinking; know what practice is, but don’t see relationship to outcome; know they make mistakes but can’t impel selves to correct error; present-oriented; unable to self-regulate; have VERY LITTLE ABILITY TO REGULATE PRACTICE; still need guidance; ready to take piano lessons and study voice, accurate body mapping and movement important (dance); open to broad genres of music until 3rd or 4th grade when they turn to “popular”; 5th-6th graders prefer fast music; if take music lessons, score higher on tests of general and spatial cognitive development (math, engineering), get along better with others, fewer discipline problems, strengthen eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills; learn self-discipline and rewards of hard work; better at fractions, geometry, proportions, thinking in space and time; can raise 2nd graders to understanding of 6th-grade reasoning concepts (piano teaching and computer software experiment); music lessons far better than computer for enhancing abstract reasoning; pattern recognition and mental representations scores, plus self-esteem, improve significantly if 3 years or more of lessons;

Secondary school
12-17 years: band or orchestra participants had lowest lifetime use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; SAT: performers score 57 points higher on verbal, 41 points higher on math; if “music appreciation” taken, scored 63 points higher on verbal, 44 points higher on math; normally, “disruptive students are 12.14 % of total school population; only 8.08% of music class students are disruptive; receive more academic honors and awards, and better grades;

18-23 years: arts one of 6 basic academics needed to succeed in college; helps entrance applications; 66% of music majors applying to medical school are admitted (highest of any group) compared to 44% of biochemistry majors applying; musicians emotionally healthier, handle tests and stress better;

23+ years: best engineers and technical designers in Silicon Valley are practicing musicians; brain scans show larger areas (reading, nerve fibers connecting both halves of brain), especially if training begun before age 7;

LEARNING MODALITIES (Related to Ancient Chinese Saying)
Aural – I hear and I forget.
Visual – I see and I remember.
Kinetic – I do and I understand.

The best learning takes place when activities involving all three modalities are included.
I think the following quote summarizes our dilemma, something we music instructors have always believed. Perhaps as science continues to prove that our beliefs are well-founded, and this information is disseminated well (how can we help?), educational systems in this country will change.:

“The world's top academic countries place a high value on music education. Hungary, Netherlands and Japan stand atop worldwide science achievement and have strong commitment to music education. All three countries have required music training at the elementary and middle school levels, both instrumental and vocal, for several decades. The centrality of music education to learning in the top-ranked countries seems to contradict the United States' focus on math, science, vocabulary, and technology.”

(Source: from The International Foundation for Music Research ( International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IAEEA) Test)

Nancy E. Harris, M.H., Vocologist. “The Voice Builder”,